WHAT IS TRAUMA?
Trauma is what you experience when you were not able to integrate past events that you interpreted as overwhelming and life-threatening.
Your interpretation of the events will depend on your personality and your relationship to your primary caregivers (parents, grandparents, etc.). Trauma is a part of life, and its impact shapes who you are today. A traumatic event can be a once-off experience or it can be lived through a long period of time. A car accident, divorce, the death of a loved one, an operation as a child, growing up with abusive or emotionally absent parents, or sexual assault are all examples of trauma. Trauma is something that we normally experience in our past, but its sequels are often felt in the present. How? Maybe this example might clarify it.
For example, when your male or female partner makes a comment about you, you may immediately feel triggered and thoughts like "s/he doesn't love me" may come to mind. Feelings of rejection may also be present. Your instant reaction is to attack back with a criticism or similar. Before you know it, you are both triggered and your discussion has escalated into an argument, or even worse. But those thoughts or feelings may have more to do with not feeling loved by one of your parents or feeling rejected by them as a child. This is traumatic for a child. Your childhood trauma is playing out in your intimate relationships.
“We are poor indeed if we are only sane.” D. W. Winnicott
WHAT HAPPENS IN YOUR BRAIN?
When trauma happened, the areas of your brain that register events were either not fully developed (if you were a child) or inactive (if you were an adult), so you might not remember what happened to you as a story, but as body or feeling memories, as irrational beliefs about yourself.
The brain has an area that archives memories (hippocampus). I call this area the Librarian. The Librarian allows you to remember your first kiss, the first time you rode a bike, or how you met your best friend. The Librarian archives the information given by the prefrontal cortex, which I call the Wise Adult. When you are facing a threat, the Wise Adult is inactive, as all the energy of the body is needed to escape the threat. You don't need to think about how to avoid being run over by a car; you need to jump in order to avoid it. Your energy needs to be in your legs to jump, so before the Wise Adult can think, you are already safe. As a result, the Librarian may never get information from the Wise Adult about how the car was coming towards you, what colour it was and how the event happened, and this memory is never archived the way we understand memory.
When the Librarian archives the memories, we can recall them when we wish, and we know they are in the past. When the Librarian is not able to archive the memory because it didn't receive the information from the Wise Adult (as in the example), your brain has no way of knowing that this event is in the past. In fact, the memory is temporarily stored in the amygdala (which I call Scared Child) and other parts of your body. When you are triggered, the amygdala will sound the alarm, and the memory of the event will come unexpectedly in the form of flashbacks, anxiety, muscular tension, exhaustion, future expectation of danger, irrational beliefs, or panic attacks. You brain thinks it is happening now.
"Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive."
Thích Nhất Hạnh
WHY DOES IT HURT SO MUCH?
Because you may not remember exactly what happened to you, but you remember in the form of feelings, sensations (shame, fear, a look, a smell), an expectation of danger or irrational beliefs ("I am not safe", "I am unlovable", "I need to keep a low profile"). You may never know what happened to you, but your distress will indicate that you have wounds that need healing.
The feeling, sensation or thought memories will be recalled when you are triggered by anything that may remotely remind you of your trauma. Your brain is trying to protect you from further harm because it doesn’t know that the trauma is over. The feelings belong to your past, but you will feel as if they are real now and you may give them an incorrect interpretation.
For example, if your parents punished you harshly when you did something wrong as a child, you may be very afraid of making a mistake for fear of the consequences. As a result, you may keep a low profile, only engaging in activities that you truly master to avoid making mistakes, while a part of you is longing to expand to other areas, but too afraid of doing so.
You cannot change your past, but if you can manage to calm down while recalling the adverse events, your brain will start changing. This doesn't happen over night. You need to get to know yourself and your triggers to calm the activation in your body when needed. This is called self-regulation. When you will learn to self-regulate better, you will be able to start healing your wounds, creating a new life, with increased self-confidence, better relationships, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose.
“People can learn to control and change their behavior, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions." Bessel van der Kolk
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HOW CAN YOU HEAL?
There are many ways of treating trauma. Research with brain scans has challenged our traditional view that talking about the past helps. This may not always be helpful. Sometimes it helps, but sometimes it can make things worse. Most trauma experts agree that these things help:
Having New Experiences
Your trauma is remembered in body sensations, feeling memories and irrational beliefs. You can heal if you can convince your brain that things are different now and you are safe. Because they are, but your brain doesn't know it yet. You need to experience it for your brain to truly believe it is over.
Having an attentive therapist accompanying you while you face your wounds can be in itself a new experience for you. But there are different ways in which a therapist can facilitate your healing.
You can express your feelings with art materials and release the emotional charge of your experiences.
You can do EFT or tapping and release the emotional charge of the difficult events recalled.
You can use movement, letting your body express the "memories" that is holding while attentively observing that it is safe now.
You can enter into a conversation with your different parts and gain clarity about your internal conflict, creating a new experience for your hurt parts.
Each person will need a combination of these techniques, or different things at different times in your healing process. Be assured that you will only do what you feel comfortable and safe doing.
Taking the time to choose the right therapist for you will save you a lot of time and suffering in your healing. Every therapist will try to do its best, but you will not feel safe with all of them. Pick a therapist that helps you feel at ease.
Your wounds can only be healed while your "wise adult" (prefrontal cortex) is active. Activating your wise adult creates separation between yourself and your wounds, making it easier for you to look at them.
There are different ways in which you can do this, and you can choose the one that feels best.
You can work with a sandtray and speak about the different objects in the tray, instead of directly about yourself.
You can do EFT or tapping and calm down the activation of your nervous system while you are recalling a difficult experience.
You can use "the language of parts" and talk about your different parts to create separation between the part of you who knows how to heal, and the different parts that need attention or healing inside (your inner critic, your needy child, your scared part, your depressed part, etc.)
You can observe what is happening inside you while you speak about a particular topic, observing your sensations (areas of tension, aches, heartbeat, etc.).
These may be easy for some people, while it might be frustratingly difficult for others. Your first step in healing your traumas is exercising your ability to engage your prefrontal cortex, creating separation between yourself and your wounds. You will stop feeling wounded. Instead, you will understand that you have wounds, and they can heal.
Two things need healing in therapy: your wounds and your adaptive responses to your wounds (symptoms). Once you accept that your symptoms are courageous attempts to survive a less-than-ideal past, you will be on the right path to heal.
You might hate your reactive behaviours, your body image, your panic attacks, negative thoughts or extreme fears, but they were all adaptive responses to survive your environment and get you where you are now. They serve as protectors against your distress. When you can accept them, and heal what lies behind, things may start changing, you may start feeling a different sense of self: calmer, curious, joyful, creative. Here is a dialogue that commonly happens in my therapy:
"I hate it when I am not able to stand up for myself"
"I wonder how not standing up for yourself might have helped you as a child."
"Well, I guess I did stand up for myself and my dad got very angry, so I learnt to keep quiet"
"You learnt to be quiet to avoid your dad's anger?"
"That's right. I guess I still think that I need to keep quiet."
"But your dad is not around any more. Things are very different now. Can you notice that? ...